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100 Years of Myth-Making in Mexico

The Death of Latin America’s First Revolution

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City.

A specter is haunting Mexico. With the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentennial of liberation from the European yoke looming just three years down history’s pike, this November 20, the day set aside to commemorate the inception of Latin America’s first revolution of the poor and landless, was fraught with nervous anticipation.

If history is any gauge, Mexico’s political metabolism seems to rise in revolution every hundred years in the tenth year of the century. In 1810, under the tutelage of the rebel priest Miguel Hidalgo, the brown and black underclass rose against their Spanish masters, eventually achieving independence a decade later. Similarly in 1910, Mexico’s landless peasants behind the insurrectionary generals Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata overthrew the 34-year rule of the dictator Porfirio Diaz and launched a revolution which like the revolt of 1810 played itself out over the next ten years, taking over a million lives with it before fizzling into memory and myth.

In a November 20th ceremony set under the great dome of the Monument to the Revolution where many of the luminaries of that glorious epoch are entombed, and surrounded by military brass that have been so vital to governance ever since Felipe Calderon was awarded the presidency in the fraud-smeared 2006 elections, the freshman head of the Mexican state envisioned the 2010 coalescing of centennials as a time of national unity in which the rancorous confrontations of the past would dissolve in a monumental love-in.

While Calderon spoke, hundreds of supporters of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) who continues to insist he was defrauded out of victory by Calderon last year, were herded up behind metal barricades erected by military police and kept at bay four blocks away from the commemoration.

As culmination of the festivities, the President’s point man on the duel centennials, Rafael Tovar y Teresa, outlined 400 projects the federal government will initiate to honor independence and revolution in 2010. No budget was announced.

The past is always present in Mexican politics. Back in 1910, the dictator Diaz eviscerated the education budget to inaugurate a similar array of public works
to commemorate the nation’s first hundred years, an allocation that so infuriated the middle classes that they eventually aligned themselves with the coming revolution.

The Mexican Revolution was a long time in coming and, indeed, was rooted in the deep inequities that emerged once the "Criollos" (Europeans born in the New World) finally wrested liberation from Spain in 1821 and consolidated control over the darker underclasses. But the immediate genesis of the Revolution was in the brutal rule of Porfirio Diaz between 1876 and 1910. Under Diaz, the Indians were stripped of their lands and attached to the great haciendas in virtual bondage. Diaz protected the tiny ruling class assiduously with all the force of his fearsome "Federales." Natural resources and public services were franchised to European and U.S. tycoons. The rule of the few over the many was the law.

But by 1910, Diaz and his dictatorship were showing signs of exhaustion. In a moment that telegraphed his encroaching senility, General Diaz invited independent candidates to compete in the presidential elections and Francisco Madero, a liberal landowner from the north who had been schooled in Berkeley California, declared his availability on the "No Re-election" ticket. Yet, at the last minute, Diaz came to his senses, clapped Madero in prison, and stole the July election as usual – much as AMLO has accused Calderon of replicating in 2006.

Madero, who had cross-class support, soon escaped from jail in his native San Luis Potosi and made his way to El Paso where he proclaimed the Mexican Revolution which was set to begin November 20th when he urged his compatriots to go to the plazas of their cities and towns and declare themselves in rebellion against the dictator. Hardly anyone did, of course, and those intrepid souls who ventured out that day were slaughtered by Diaz’s Federals.

But Mexicans are not celebrated for being punctual and months later Francisco Villa in Chihuahua and the governors of Coahuila and Sonora states Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon rose in the north and Emiliano Zapata and his Liberating Army of the South joined forces and the rebel armies converged on the capital. Revolutions rise regionally in Mexico.

Reading the handwriting on the wall, Diaz hopped the first boat out for Paris France and in repeat elections held in 1911, Francisco Madero was overwhelmingly elected president of Mexico. This was the first Mexican Revolution.

But Madero, a hacienda owner from the north, held private property to be sacrosanct, thus severely disaffecting Zapata who fought on in the state of Morelos just south of the capital for the return of his village lands in the Nahua community of Anenecuilco. And just as Madero did not satisfy Zapata and his ally Villa, his occupation of the presidency did not please U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson who feared Washington’s interests would be compromised by the liberal. Lane Wilson, an engineer of the U.S. holocaust in the Philippines, was soon up to his ears in the plot that ended with Madero’s assassination outside the Black Palace prison here and the installation of the drunken general Vittoriano Huerta, fresh from riding down Zapata’s ragtag army, as the new dictator.

Then as now with its $1.4 billion USD Plan Mexico security blanket, Washington saw its southern neighbor both as a threat and an opportunity. The ogre Huerta disaffected newly-elected liberal president Woodrow Wilson who supplanted Lane Wilson’s big business boss William Howard Taft in the vote-taking of 1912 and Wilson was determined to teach the Mexicans all about democracy – much as George Bush has been teaching the Iraqis.

When Wilson landed the Marines in Veracruz in 1914, Huerta had crushed the revolution beneath his iron heel and the forces of Zapata and Villa, Carranza and Obregon were divided, scattered, and dormant. But the U.S. president’s bonehead deployment reactivated and united the rebel armies against both the hatedYanqui invaders and the equally odious Huerta and the General soon joined Diaz on a slow boat to Europe. That was the second Mexican revolution.

The inevitable power struggle ensued: Zapata and Villa were aligned against Carranza and Obregon. It was not unlike tag team wrestling. In late 1914, the patrician Carranza capitalized on rampant anti-Americanism by establishing his version of the revolutionary government in Veracruz once the gringos had abandoned the port. Meanwhile, the top tier representatives of Zapata and Villa struck common cause behind rebel lines in the state of Aguascalientes at the first National Democratic Convention – both the neo-Zapatista Army of National Liberation and AMLO have since staged similarly-named conventions.

By autumn, Villa and Zapata had taken Mexico City. Their celebrated meeting under an Ahuehuete tree on a "chinampa" (floating island) in the southern district of Xochimilco is considered the apogee of all the Mexican revolutions. But the two rebel leaders sensed that they were not cut out for the presidency of their country. They were men of action and could not stomach political intrigue. Villa yearned for the wide open spaces of his beloved Norte and Zapata pledged to return to Anenecuilco. By the beginning of 1915, both had abandoned the capital to a caretaker government that Carranza promptly annihilated.

On his march north, Villa’s elite "Dorados" or "Golden Ones" were decimated by Obregon in central Mexico at the battles of Celaya and Leon. And by 1916, Wilson, nudged by U.S. leftists like John Kenneth Turner and Upton Sinclair, had thrown in with Carranza. Villa, indignant at what he considered the U.S. president’s perfidy, launched a surprise attack on Columbus, New Mexico, the first land invasion of the United States since 1812. Wilson immediately dispatched General Black Jack Pershing (he earned the sobriquet as the commander of black troops in the so-called Spanish-American War) to pursue Pancho Villa into Mexico, a failed expedition whose futility is celebrated in legend and corridos (border ballads) south of the border.

Washington’s intervention in World War I ended Pershing’s foolish escapade and Wilson, who had been tormented by the Mexican Revolution during two and half turns in the White House, suffered a paralyzing stroke. Mexico became a dead issue in Washington.

As the revolution wound down, Zapata had been reduced to fighting a guerrilla war in Morelos. In embedding the Caudillo’s agrarian reform program – the Plan de Ayala – in his 1917 revolutionary constitution, Carranza further undercut Zapata’s constituency. Still the incorruptible revolutionary battled on against federal troops until finally he was tricked by the traitor Guajardo who, under the pretext of re-supplying Zapata’s bedraggled fighters with fresh arms and ammunition, lured him to the Chinameca Hacienda where on April 10th 1919 he was gunned down by Carranza’s sharpshooters and many say, the Mexican Revolution died with him.

The Mexican Revolution was really three or four revolutions depending on how you define a revolution – but not one of them was a real revolution. The class structure remained unaltered although the "revolutionary" generals and their descendants got a bigger piece of the pie. The campesinos, in whose name the Mexican Revolution had been fought, waited 30 years for the expropriation of the great landholdings and then received crumbs and the worst lands. Workers did not take over the means of production nor was socialism ever a consideration as an operating principle of the economy. The Indians were monumentalized in the murals of Rivera and Orozco and Siquieros et al but racism thrived. First the PRI and now Calderon’s PAN steal one election after another with impunity just like Porfirio Diaz did back in 1910.

Indeed, the Mexican Revolution’s most enduring legacy has been its mythification. The mythology that the underclass can rise up to power inspired 20th century revolutions from the Russian to the Cuban and to the extent the people continue to believe in this myth, another Mexican Revolution is possible.

"Eye on Mexico" (parts one and two) is drawn from a talk of the same name delivered by JOHN ROSS in San Francisco this November at a benefit to buy the author a new eye. Contact johnross@igc.org if you have further information.